What Aspects of E-Learning Will Have the Biggest Impact in the Next Decade?

Anant Agarwal, President, edX

In the 40 years since the publication of Social Issues in Computing, the area of computer-assisted instruction (now called e-learning) has developed in huge and unexpected ways.  Who would have imagined that college-level courses would be delivered via computer to students in every country? Or that this delivery would provide a means to generate and mine vast amounts of data for pedagogical research? The social implications of these developments are enormous, and not yet fully understood.  They are tools to democratize education through access, but can also, through research, enhance how education is delivered and packaged, online and on campus.  E-learning is in its infancy, with much unexplored potential. It is quickly evolving, with much more to come.

The next decade will bring continued, rapid change in the educational landscape, with the biggest impact in three areas: blended learning on campus, education research and continuous learning.

Early results of several blended learning pilots, where online learning activities are blended with in-person interaction on campus, suggest improved learning outcomes for students. Instructors too will benefit from using MOOC technology as a next generation textbook. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content in their classrooms that best fit the topic, their teaching style and their students’ learning styles.  For example, MIT professor Michael Cima uses online assessments common in MOOCs in an on-campus class to see if more frequent assessment will improve learning outcomes. We expect to see more of this kind of blended learning on college campuses in the next decade, with SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) becoming more popular.

In research, I anticipate we will discover more about how people learn, as we work with our partner institutions to mine MOOC’s Big Data.  For example, researcher Philip Guo studied student engagement as it relates to video length. By mining five million video viewing sessions, he concluded that six-minute videos were the ideal length.  In addition, a team of researchers at Harvard and MIT, led by David Pritchard and Lori Breslow, recently released their initial findings.  (Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom:  Research into edX’s First MOOC, RPA Journal, June 14, 2013, By Lori Breslow, David E. Pritchard, Jennifer DeBoer, Glenda S. Stump, Andrew D. Ho, and Daniel T. Seaton). One of their findings relates particularly to the social aspects of e-learning.  They found that a student who worked offline with someone else in the class, or with someone with expertise in the subject scored almost three points higher than someone working alone. Pritchard and Breslow’s group concluded that, “This is a noteworthy finding as it reflects what we know about on-campus instruction:  that collaborating with another person, whether novice or expert, strengthens learning.”  This finding will prove particularly insightful for colleges who incorporate online instruction into their on-campus curriculum in blended courses, discussed above.

And finally, I predict that we will see alternative education paths, such as continuous learning, start to emerge. With continuous learning, students may complete first-year subjects through MOOCs, then study for two years in a traditional campus setting—experiencing the magic of campus and group interaction–then enter the workforce for real-world skills, taking MOOCs or other courses as needed through their career in place of the final year.

Anant Agarwal is the president of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. Anant taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries. He has served as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He is a successful serial entrepreneur, having co-founded several companies including Tilera Corporation which created the Tile multicore processor, and Virtual Machine Works. His work on Organic Computing was selected by Scientific American as one of 10 World-Changing Ideas in 2011, and he was named in Forbes’ list of top 15 education innovators in 2012. Anant is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the ACM. He hacks on WebSim, in his spare time. Anant holds a Ph.D. from Stanford and a bachelor’s from IIT Madras.

One comment

  1. Jacqueline Garcia

    My name is Jackie and I am very interested in finding ways to create social change with computer science, specifically educational change. My question is, what is your comment on that and if you know anyone who does that type of work?
    -Thank you.